From Memphis to Columbia (Discoveries, January 1996

From Memphis to Columbia:

An Interview With Jody Stephens of Big Star

From Discoveries, January 1996

When Big Star released their first record in 1972, it might have seemed that they were behind the times. Like Badfinger and the Raspberries, they dared to play Beatle-esque pop music in the early 70s. With hindsight, it looks more like they were ahead of their time, anticipating the Power Pop genre by several years. Big Star didn't have synthesizers, costumes or ten minute drum solos, just great songs, chiming guitars and sweet harmonies. Their records were certainly radio-friendly, but they never made the charts. And yet, 20 years after the group fell apart, their name is frequently dropped - band after band cites them as a key influence, and all for one simple reason, the music. There's very little hype and mythology tied to Big Star - the records speak for themselves.

Big Star was together for less than four years. The band was formed when ex-Box Tops vocalist Alex Chilton linked up with drummer Jody Stephens, bassist Andy Hummel and singer/guitarist Chris Bell. With the Box Tops, a teenaged Chilton had reached the charts with R&B material like "The Letter" and "Cry Like A Baby." By 1969, the singer was tired of the pre-packaged group and walked offstage mid-performance, never to return. Chilton spent time in New York and worked on an aborted solo project before heading home to Memphis. By 1971, he was rehearsing with Bell, Hummel, and Stephens, their new music inspired by a mutual love of bands llike the Byrds, the Kinks, and the Beatles.

The group signed to the Memphis-based Ardent label and set to work on their first album, taking the name Big Star from a nearby supermarket. If the name seems overly optimistic, then so was the title of their album. #1 Record was released in 1972 to great reviews, but very disappointing sales. Part of the problem was with Ardent's distributor, Stax Records - a company ill-suited to an Anglo-pop act like Big Star. The album received promising radio exposure, but had trouble finding its way into stores.

Amidst commercial disappointment and personal conflicts, Chris Bell quit the band. It has been suggested that his departure reflected a conflict with Chilton as to the nature of Big Star - that Bell wanted to focus on studio work, while Chilton was more interested in playing live. It also seems likely that Bell resented his own talent being over shadowed by Chilton's celebrity. When considering Big Star's musical legacy, it's important not to overlook Chris Bell's contribution. On #1 Record, he and Chilton were, essentially, equal partners. To appreciate Bell's importance to Big Star, listen to Rykodisc's "I Am The Cosmos" CD, or compare the studio version of "In The Street" to the post-Bell version on Big Star Live. Bell continued his musical career after Big Star, recording an album's worth of material at studios in Memphis and at Chateau D'Heurville in France. But he never got the record deal he was looking for, his lone solo release a 1978 single on the Car label, "I Am the Cosmos" b/w "You and Your Sister." The record hinted at what might have been, had Bell stayed with Big Star - the B-side with harmonies by Chilton, would fit perfectly on #1 Record. Chris Bell died in a car crashn in December, 1978, 13 years before the rest of his solo recordings were finally released.
After Bell's departure at the end of 1972, Big Star had split up, eventually reuniting to play at a music writers' convention. As a three-piece, they went on to record a second album for Ardent, 1974's Radio City. The record was every bit as good as their debut, yet rawer and less produced, due to Bell's absence. Poor distribution once again thwarted Big Star - the album was a commercial failure. They had now released two great albums and had little to show for their efforts. Their situation was inevitably disheartening and, in 1974, Andy Hummel left the band. Chilton and Stephens continued, recruiting bassist John Lightman for a series of live dates - one of which is captured on Rykodisc's Big Star Live CD. Before long, Lightman was also gone, leaving only Stephens and Chilton to start work on a third album.

In late 1974, what was left of Big Star entered Ardent's studio with producer Jim Dickinson and a host of session players. The material they recorded saw a further shift away from the polished pop of #1 Record, to the point that some have referred to it as Chilton's first solo album. There are lovely moments of melodicism, yet Chilton seems to have deliberately sabotaged his own pop potential - perhaps in response to the failture of the first two albums. Big Star's third album is the sound of a band (or of Alex Chilton) falling apart. It lacks a definite title (Third, Sister Lovers, and Beale Street Green are the most likely candidates) or track sequence, but Rykodisc's 1992 CD version includes all 19 songs recorded at those sessions. When at test pressing sent out by the band faded to garner any label interest, there was no reason for Big Star to continue. Chilton began a sporadic solo career making records which sounded as different from Big Star as Big Star had from the Box Tops. (Big Star fans venturing into Chilton's solo catalog should check out Bach's Bottom, a 1975 recording which combines Big Star melodicism with drunken disarray.)

The story should have ended in 1975, but Big Star was slowly unintentionally acquiring a cult following - particularly in Britain, where Aura Records gave the album its release in 1978. Since then, Big Star's legend has grown through their influence on a new generation of bands R.E.M. cited them as a major influence, as did the Replacements who recorded a Song called "Alex Chilton"; the Bangles covered "September Gurls"; Teenage Fanclub, the Afghan Whigs, Primal Scream and the Posies have talked about Big Star's influence on them. Yet a reunion seemed unlikely. Chilton rarely played Big Star material in his solo sets, though he periodically did Box Tops shows on the nostalgia circuit. Jody Stephens stayed in the music business, working as projects director for Ardent Records. But in 1993 it happened, University of Missouri students Jeff Breeze and Mike Mulvihill engineered a Big Star reunion. They first contacted Stephens, who said he'd do it if Chilton would, not expecting that this would be the case. Yet Chilton agreed, he would do the show, as long as no better paying gigs were offered for that date. (Chilton has suggested that what he actually agreed to was coming to Missouri to play with a bunch of musicians, one of whom happened to be Jody Stephens.) And so, accompanied by Ken Stringfellow and Jonathan Auer of the Posies, Big Star played a full set at the university's Springfest - recorded by Zoo Records for the subsequent Columbia CD.

As unlikely as that show seemed, others followed. Big Star toured Europe and Japan before returning to the U.S. for selected dates and an appearance on "The Tonight Show." In October 1994, the band played a triumphant hometown show in Memphis, an especially moving experience for Jody Stephens, who recently spoke with Discoveries about Big Star past and present.

Discoveries:: Big Star was originally a trio called Ice Water.

Jody Stephens: Among other things. The roots of Big Star - it was more like a quartet. It was Steve Ray, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and myself. We had several different names - Ice Water, Rock City. We did some covers and we did some original songs. I don't know if any of those songs carried over onto an actual Big Star record. I don't think so. I can remember covers, like "Funk 49," a Led Zeppelin song or two. We did "Tinker Tailor," the Terry Reed song. That was really our beginning. I met Andy Hummel in the seventh or eight grade through a mutual friend. Andy lived in the mid-town area of Memphis - I lived out East. Andy happened to be playing in a band with this friend of mine. And then probably five years later, I guess, I was still in high school, but I was playing drums in the first college production of "Hair," at Memphis State. And Andy came to see one of the shows, and came up and said, hey, we're putting a band together, are you interest in coming and jamming a bit? I said sure. Steve Ray was at this first jam, and Terry Manning, who's goine on to be a pretty successful producer, was there with a guitar strapped on. And Chris and myself and Andy. The whole thing was kind of disjointed. I walked away thinking it could probably never be organized enough to get anything done. But I was wrong. The next rehearsal turned out to be more of a band rehearsal with Steve, Chris and Andy. We started working on songs. So that was really kind of the beginning - it was more of a four piece. Not to contradict history or anything.

Discoveries:: Did Steve leave the band before Alex appeared?

Stephens: Steve left the band long before Alex appeared. And we were a three piece for a while. Just Chris, Andy and myself. When Alex came to see us, he liked what he saw. He was looking to move back to Memphis and join a band.

Discoveries:: Had you actually started recording any of the songs that ended up on the first Big Star album before Alex joined the band?

Stephens: No, not that I remember. Everything that wound up on the album was post Alex joining the band.

Discoveries:: How would you characterize what Alex brought to the band, as opposed to what Chris' contribution was?

Stephens: Chris added a real pop aspect to the band. I think Chris provided the production direction for the first album. And Alex, [provided] the production direction for the second. You can see how the two contrast. That's kind of how the band changed. We went from a pretty poppy band to something with a littie grit, as well.

Discoveries:: In the liner notes to one of the Big Star CDs, it says that Chris wanted the band to be more of a studio project and Alex wanted to be more of a live band.

Stephens: Gee, I never heard that one. But that would make sense. Chris was pretty studio oriented. To the point that I thought it really did get in the way of performing live and rehearsing. I think that main conflict was that, with the release of the first record, Chris brought so much to the project that he didn't feel he got credit for. We released the record and reviews started coming in, and the reviews focused on Alex. They focused on Alex because it was like, "I want to introduce you to Big Star and you've heard of Alex Chilton, who was in the Box Tops." I think it was a writer's way of introducing the band via someone they heard of before. At any rate, I think Chris was pretty disappointed at the lack of attention he was paid. I think that's probably the primary reason he split. I think he thought he'd have to live under Alex's shadow.

Discoveries: I guess the band didn't have a lot of commercial success at the time.

Stephens: We had none. There still really hasn't been any financial success. Some attention is being paid to the band now. We've been able to do some live performances since the reunion - we were lucky enough that Mike Mulvihill called up and instigated that and we're really fortunate that the Zoo - without even being solicited - called up and said, hey, we want to record this.
What's come about since the release of that record is the European tour and the tour of Japan. We most recently played on the 29th of October here in Memphis. There were about a thousand people there. It blew my mind that we could do so well in our hometown. And we also did the House of Blues in Los Angeles. Those were the two most recent gigs. What brought that all about was the guys in R.E.M. mentioning the band early on. Paul Westerberg writing the song "Alex Chilton," Greg Dulli with the Afghan Whigs mentioning the band a lot of folks keep putting the name out there. People start picking up on it and seeking out tapes. Outside the mentions in the press, it was basically people just passing tapes around. One guy digging it and passing it on to his friend. That's probably why it took twenty years - it's just a slow process.

Discoveries:: Do you think the music you were doing in the early seventies was out of fashion at the time?

Stephens: I think it was out of fashion at the time. It was a pretty raw approach to performing. Even the first record, the performances weren't slick performances, so I think it was a Iittle out of keeping with the other things that were in the market at the time. We weren't sophisticated players. I think musically or stylistically we were out of step with what was going on, too.

Discoveries:: Did Chris play on the second album?

Stephens: You know, I can't remember Chris playing on the second album. I know there are songs that he and Alex wrote together - "Back of a Car" was one of them - these are the stories I've heard. When Chris separated from the band, it's like, Chris didn't want to have his name on these songs - so I think he and Alex kind of divided up their songs that they'd co-written. Alex took a couple and Chris took a couple and they just put their own names on them and excluded the other. But I don't remember Chris playing on Radio City.

Discoveries:: After Radio City, you did a tour. Was that the only tour Big Star did?

Stephens: Actually we did a couple of tours. I mean, the first wasn't of any real length. But we actually hit the road and played the University of Georgia in Athens, I think. We played in Mississippi and a couple of other places. The other tour we did was - we played Max's Kansas City in New York. From there we went to Boston and played the Perforance Centre, opening for Badfinger. And then we played in Syracuse and down in Ohio. I think that tour was like two and a half or three weeks. That was about the longest we were ever out for. Other than that, it was just a few dates, here and there.

Discoveries: Which tour did the Big Star Live album come from?

Stephens: The WLIR broadcast? It was from the tour when we opened for Badfinger. John Lightman was in the band, playing bass. Probably April, May, or June of '73.

Discoveries:: By the time you started the third album, was it just you and Alex?

Stephens: Right, and we picked up some side players.

Discoveries:: What was your view on where the band was going when you started that album?

Stephens: I was kind of puzzled, myself. At that point it was really in Alex's hands. It was more like an Aiex solo project. I wrote one song. My contribution was I brought in a string section for the song I wrote, "For You." And everybody liked it so much that Alex sat down and started working on arrangements for the other songs with Carl Marsh, who did the string arrangements. Other than that, it was just Alex having a real sort of cathartic experience. It was a real kind of emotional, dramatic time in this life, for a lot of reasons. He was going through a pretty dark period in his life. And I think he did a brilliant job of reflecting that on that album. And to watch it sort of unfold was, at the time, really bewildering to me, because he would do things - we would record a song and it would be really sweet and pretty and then Alex would go back and throw the bass out of tune and do something really wild and wacky to screw it up. At the time, those were decisions that I wouldn't have made. But in retrospect, it was Alex kind of working this thing, to the point where he thought it was a true reflection - this is what he was feeling. This is what he wanted to, kind of, hand to people. So, in retrospect, I think it's a brilliant account of where he was in his life. He probably would never like to relive that.
You know, I can think back to periods in my life where, for some reason, that album would have been reassuring to me. Probably just to have known that somebody else was going through a sort of soul-wrenching period like that. I probably could have found comfort in that album, and I think a lot of people did actually, for that reason. They saw it and thought, someone else is going through this in their life, too. In its own deep, dark way it touched a lot of folks and made them feel comfortable with what they were feeling.

Discoveries: Was there a point when it was clear that the album was finished?

Stephens: Yeah, there was a clear point that it was finished. We had 19 songs - that was enough. There wasn't a clear point when it was released (laughs). We had, like, an initial white label pressing we sent out to record companies - shopping the album. Obviously there were no takers, at least until 1978. It was four years later, I guess, when Aura Records put it out in England.

Discoveries: Was that as a result of the legend of the first two albums having been built up a little?

Stephens: Probably so. Even the live broadcast we were talking about - the WLIR broadcast. So that indicated to me that there was at least a little bit of an audience.

Discoveries:: Did you ever have a definite title for the third album?

Stephens: Gee, not that I ever knew of. Alex may have a different opinion of that. Alex may have been definite with Sister Lovers - the name stemming from the fact that we dated sisters. They weren't twins - they were about a year apart.

Discoveries:: When you first sent out the white label pressing to record companies, did it reflect the track selection and sequence that you wanted for the album?

Stephens: You know, there was a track listing and sequence on the white labeled album - but I don't know that that's what everybody intended to release at the end of the day. If someone were to pick it up, I guess we figured the record label would look at it [and] probably cut it down to ten or twelve. It was a pretty standard thing.

Discoveries:: Were you involved in the selection and sequence of the tracks for the Rykodisc version?

Stephens: No, I wasn't. I think Jim Dickinson was involved with that. I wouidn't swear to it.

Discoveries:: Why do you think the reunion in Missouri happened after all those years?

Stephens: It was the age of Aquarius (laughs). The moon was in the seventh house. Mike Mulvihill called at the right moment. I guess we were all just feeling good and feeling cooperative. I would never have thought it would work. When I got the call I thought, you know, an easy way out of it for me would be to say, if Alex will do this, I'll do it - thinking Alex probably wouldn't do it, from all I'd heard about Alex's sentiments about Big Star. Every now and then someone would tell me about one of Alex's shows that they'd seen and he wouldn't play any Big Star music. Apparently, it's not that he never wanted to, it's just that he was being Alex Chilton - he wasn't being Big Star on stage. So when the opportunity came around to do a few Big Star songs, Alex agreed to do it. It was kind of shocking to me.

Discoveries:: Is there anymore unreleased Big Star material that's likely to come out?

Stephens: No, not of the original band. But our Memphis show was video taped - a three camera shoot. That may be coming out in the next few months.

Discoveries: I guess it would be nice to have something out now that you're more practiced with the new band.

Stephens: Oh God, the Columbia date - I was more practiced for [that show] than I ever was with the old band. We just never rehearsed. And I never rehearsed outside the band. I just didn't have a place to. Being a good drummer's hard.

Discoveries:: Well, you certainly did a great job. Especially on those fills on "The Ballad of El Goodo."

Stephens: Man, I tell you, I can remember the first time we did that song. And Alex probably played through it once and I think I had the part the first time through on drums. It sounds corny, but it was a very spiritual experience, 'cause the part was just there, as if I'd heard it all before. A lot of songs were like that. What I loved about the band was that I thought the songs were incredible. I didn't write them - I'm not bragging. It just blew me away. I was a huge Beatles freak and I thought, if I could ever find a band with great songs like that, I'd be the luckiest person in the world. All of a sudden, here I am in this band and these amazing songs are coming out. It makes the drumming easy.

Discoveries:: In the couple of years since the Columbia show, what new songs have you added to your repertoire?

Stephens: We do the occasional "Girl From Ipanima." We added "Patty Girl" at some point, when we were in Europe. I guess we added "Jesus Christ" after the Columbia show. "Til the End of the Day." "Patty Girl" is a song that Norman Blake (of Teenage Fanclub) came up with. We did "Kansas City," we did "Duke of Earl" - just whatever happens to pop up at the moment in Alex's roots repertoire.

Discoveries:: What do you see in the future for Big Star?

Stephens: We could do several more things. Or it could have stopped with the last gig, in Los Angeles at the House of Blues. It's pretty much anybody's call, although I know we've been pitched for the New Orleans Jazz Festival. I don't think that's been confirmed. There's a lot of interest from some folks in Seattle about booking the band. Everybody assumes there's some pretty big interest from New York, too. It looks like the opportunity is there, but nothing's been confirmed.

Discoveries:: I read a quote from Alex where he said, something to the effect of, if somebody paid me a million dollars, I'd make another Big Star album. Do you think that's a possibility?

Stephens: Someone offering us a million dollars? (laughs) Or us making another Big Star album? I don't think somebody offering us a million dollars is a possibility. Another Big Star album, given the right day, given the right situation, you never know.

Big Star: The Next Generation

An Interview With Ken Stringfellow

Discoveries:: How did you get involved with the Big Star reunion?

Ken Stringfellow: Prolonged begging. It all goes back to when we were making Dear 23, we actually looked at Ardent as a place to record, because we thought oh yeah, Big Star, Replacements, ZZ Top! So we got some literature and the studio was, of course, way too expensive for us to use. But the signature on the letter saying thank you for being interested in our studio was Jody Stephens. So we looked him up and talked to him and found out he was going to be at CMJ when we were there. So we hooked up and hung out with him. He's a super nice guy. Then when we were on the Replacements tour we didn't play in Memphis, but we stopped there. We had a day off and went to Ardent and hung out with Jody some more. It was all very cool and amazing. So we stayed in touch with him. When this Big Star show came up I think he kind of put our name in the hat box to draw from. We hassled the people and it just kind of worked out. But you know they really wanted Mike Mills and Paul Westerberg or Mike Mills and Matthew Sweet, or Matthew Sweet and Chris Stamey. That's who they really wanted - not so much Jody or Alex, but certainly the people putting on the show. They wanted some big names.

Discoveries:: As a result of that show, you subsequently did some European dates.

Stringfellow: Originally it was just going to be the one show and everyone was surprised that Alex was even agreeing to do that. Then Zoo Records got involved and wanted to record the show, maybe put it out as a live album. They helped finance Jody and Alex coming out to Seattle to rehearse with us, and getting us all out to Missouri. It was going to be a one shot deal - a once in a lifetime kind of thing. But then, people in Europe, especially in the U.K., really wanted them to go. We were already going to be over there playing. We kind of used each other to get good slots at Reading and other festivals. We played a festival in Holland and we played the Reading festival - Big Star headlined the small stage. We played in London, Leeds and Glasgow. And then we thought that was it, and then suddenly we were playing again. We went to Japan last year and to San Francisco and Chicago. There was some talk of doing some more stuff this spring, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. So maybe it really is the end now. Also last year, we went to Memphis and L.A. and we did the "Tonight Show."

Discoveries:: How was the "Tonight Show?"

Stringfellow: Well, Alex had been on the "Tonight Show" with the Box Tops in 1968 - which happens to be the year I was born - so I'm sure he was feeling kind of old. George McGovern was on when he was on the first time. And this time, Ed Koch was on, so there's always been a political bent to Alex's appearances on the show.

Discoveries:: Does Alex get involved in any roundtable discussions on these occasions?

Stringfellow: They wouldn't let him talk, for some reason. I think they were afraid he'd have a foul mouth. I think Alex is definitely a celebrity - he's just not that famous. But there's some kind of thing that makes you feel intimidated somehow. Sometimes you'll ask him about things and he'll just not even answer. But then sometimes he'll just start talking to you about personal stuff. So you never know. I think he likes to talk about other things, other than his music. just like he likes to play other people's songs, he likes to talk about other people's music.

Discoveries: I wonder why that is.

Stringfellow: A lot of the time, I guess, he sees himself as an interpreter. Because I think a lot of the artists he admires were interpreters - you know, people like Chet Baker.

Discoveries: To an extent, you and Jon Auer are filling in for Chris Bell in the reunited Big Star. Do you think Chris' contribution to the band has been overlooked?

Stringfellow: Yeah, even in their time. Jody told me that when Big Star was starting out, it was really Chris' group that Alex had kind of joined. But, from day one, people really were interested in Alex because he was a celebrity. So that's probably why Chris quit - he just got fed up with it.
Even at the time, he wasn't getting recognized for his contributions.
And I think, because Alex continued on, people assumed it was Alex doing all that stuff. But I've heard that Chris essentially wrote some of the songs on Radio City. I've heard that he had something to do with "O My Soul" - at least, parts of it and "Back of a Car" and stuff like that. I mean, who really knows? You know that "You're really a nice girl...." (from "O My Soul"), that realIy high kind of screamy stuff sounds to me more like Chris than it does Alex. That's the kind of line he would come up with. Here's something interesting, the bridge of "Give Me Another Chance" - (sings) "It's so hard / just to stay alive each day / I really can't go on this way." There's chords in that bridge that are the exact same chords as "I Am the Cosmos," which is interesting to me. I pointed that out to Alex just for fun and I think he implied that that was lifted by Chris from Alex. But one wonders if maybe it wasn't the other way around, that Chris' song just happened to come out later. There are probably a lot of things that they just jammed on or something, that maybe nobody remembers who came up with what.

Discoveries:: Jody told me that playing a big show in Memphis last year was a pretty moving experience.

Stringfellow: It was amazing, really. I mean, to think about what I thought of Big Star six years ago, when I first heard them, to actually being there, on their turf - seeing Jody's family - it's far out. I don't even know what to say about it. It's one of those things, like you'd see on some science fiction program or something - I'm gonna go, travel back in time and I'm gonna hang out with Marie Antoinette or something. You can't believe you're, seeing these things up close.

Discoveries: And you're actually a part of what's happening.

Stringfellow: And then you end up, like, running France and getting your head chopped off.

Those who just can't get enough information about Big Star are advised to check out a new fanzine called "Back of a Car." Judith Beeman has put together two issues so far and hopes to produce a new one every year. The first edition included a Big Star tour diary by Ken Stringfellow, while Issue #2 features a Big Star family tree and a flexidisc of a previously unreleased Chris Bell track called "Country Morn." ("Country Morn" is an alternate version of "Watch the Sunrise," with different lyrics and vocals by Chris. This track was presumably cut prior to #1 Record.)

Copies of "Back of a Car" can be obtained by sending a check or money order for $5 (U.S. funds) to:
Back of a Car
#4636 M.P.O.
Vancouver, B.C.
Canada V6B 4A1

Big Star - A Selected Discography

U.S. Singles:

2902 When My Baby's Beside Me/ln the Street 1972
2904 Don't Lie to Me/Watch the Sunrise
2900 O My Soul(long)/O My Soul(Short) (DJ) 1974
2912 September Gurls/September Gurls (DJ)

U.S. Albums

ADS 1501 #1 Record 1972
ADS 2803 Radio City 1974

7903 Third/Sister Lovers 1978

VRCD 0222 A Little Big Star (promo CD) 1992
RCD 10220 Third/Sister Lovers (CD)
RCD 10221 Big Star Live (CD)

FCD 60025 #1 Record/Radio City

72445-11060-2 Columbia 1993B

U.K. Singles:

STAX 504 September Gurls/Mod Lang 1978

AUS 103 Kizza Me/Dream Lover
AUS 107 Jesus Christ/Big Black Car

U.K. Albums:

SXSP 302 Radio City/Big Star (2LP) 1978

AUL 703 Third Album

Big Beat/Ace
WIK 53 #1 Record 1986
WIK 54 Radio City

DOJO LP 55 Sister Lovers 1987
DOJO CD 55 Sister Lovers (CD)

Big Beat/Ace
CD WIK 910 #1 Record/Radio City (CD) 1990